Recently we’ve been examining the challenges that rural pupils face in accessing further education and training. Since then, the country has faced unprecedented disruption from the coronavirus outbreak. Frontline workers are rightly focusing on saving lives and stemming the spread of the virus. But the crisis has also thrown into the spotlight an issue which we have been campaigning on for years: rural connectivity.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that schools and FE colleges are to close, teachers have been creating homework packs and setting up ways of working online. Lecturers are also able to support students using blended learning technology, which enable students to access their peers and staff, as well as workshops via video conferencing, group phone discussions and email.
Rural pupils left behind by poor connectivity
For many, online connectivity is a basic utility – we click, swipe and shop daily without thinking. But rural pupils are going to find it much harder, if not impossible, to log on to lessons. In fact, lack of access to home-based learning is a problem rural students know all too well. Rural England’s 2018 State of Rural Services report found that a 4G connection could not be accessed in more than half of rural homes, compared with just a sixth of those in cities. Digital learning has potential to unlock accessibility issues for some students even in normal times, but poor internet speeds can present insurmountable difficulties for those learning from remote areas. If connectivity is not improved as an immediate priority, thousands of young people around the UK will see their education hampered over the coming weeks, unable to progress their studies as students with faster connectivity will. Their sense of isolation – including from their peers – will also grow with all the concerns that brings.
Looking past the crisis
Unless we enable remote learning in all parts of the country, this is only going to create further divides between attainment in rural and urban areas. The Government has already pledged £5 billion for gigabit broadband in every home by 2025. And news last week that developers will be legally required to install high-quality digital infrastructure in new homes could not come soon enough. What is clear is that the Government’s wider plans to ‘level-up’ the UK and accelerate the nationwide rollout of world-class broadband must focus on underserviced not-spots. The current crisis has only made the need more urgent. With the right connectivity, students from all corners of the country could benefit from technologies like artificial intelligence providing personalised learning and data insights to teachers not face-to-face with their pupils.
An unexpected side effect of this outbreak has been to emphasise once again the necessity of reliable connectivity for all – be it to study or remain up to date with the latest health and safety information. During these testing times, we must support all our schools and FE colleges by giving them the very latest, cutting-edge technologies. With the very nature of education changing significantly at least for the time being, why not harness the opportunities for advanced technologies in order to mitigate educational disruption for all pupils – town or country. Long, expensive school-runs could be a thing of the past in the future if we make the most of remote learning software now. However, none of this will be possible if rural students still can’t connect to broadband to make it happen.
Graham Biggs, Chief Executive of the Rural Services Network and Nik Harwood, Chief Executive of Young Somerset
Graham is a leading voice on all things rural and previously taken part in a discussion on BBC Radio 5 Live about opportunities for young people in rural areas.
Nik has worked in children and young people’s services in Somerset for more than 19 years.
 State of Rural Services 2018, published February 2019, Rural England.